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'Chord Values

A Lincoln harpsichord builder keys in an old idea


Published March 12, 2003 at 5:00 a.m.

An inventory of harpsichord parts suggests the instrument is part animal, part vegetable, part building and part junk drawer. What are we to make of something that's made up of spine, belly, balance rail, bridge, tail, cheek, compass, damper, frame, nut, rose, pins, skunktail sharps, split keys, short octaves and jacks -- and whose jacks themselves have slides and tongues, and might be doglegged?

I've been reading about harpsichords to prepare for an interview with Robert Hicks, who builds them in South Lincoln. When I called him to set it up, I admitted that I didn't know my jacks from my elbow. He gruffly let me know I'd better bone up. Now I'm feeling anxious on two fronts -- both the ancient instrument and the recalcitrant builder seem prickly and unapproachable.

After several miles on icy dirt roads, I reach Hicks' cedar-sided house, its blue roof just barely visible from the road. Hicks lives and works on the outskirts of South Lincoln, a stone's throw from the Green Mountain National Forest. His workshop, which he built with the help of a neighbor, is attached to his house. He can look in on his harpsichords-in-progress through his bedroom window.

When I first spot Robert Hicks in the doorway of his workshop, his blue corduroy pants and a plaid shirt all but fade into the dim interior.

He waves me inside and promptly launches into a lengthy monologue about harpsichord-building. He speaks in a soft, low-pitched voice, making quick, gentle gestures as he describes his work. After a brief tour of his workshop, I realize that what I took for gruffness over the phone is something more like shyness. Hicks is modest and meticulous about his work, and doesn't like "talking down" to a harpsichord ignoramus.

The most common misconception about the harpsichord is that it's like a piano. Though both have keyboards and strings, that's as far as the resemblance goes. A piano hammers, a harpsichord plucks. Pianos must be heavyset to sustain the complex machinery that translates a touch on the keyboard to a plow on the string. Harpsichords call for a light, responsive frame capable of communicating the subtle vibrations of a gently plucked string. A modern grand piano is under about 38,000 pounds of tension; a modern harpsichord sustains a mere 6000.

Harpsichord enthusiasts are touchy about associating their instrument with the piano. When the piano eclipsed the harpsichord in the early 1800s -- after 400 years of popularity -- harpsichords seized from the Paris aristocracy were burned for firewood. The instrument wasn't made, played or much missed until a handful of 20th-century piano-makers revived it, creating heavy-framed hybrids whose pathetic sound bore little resemblance to that of a true harpsichord.

It wasn't until the late 1940s that light-bodied, historically derived harpsichords were built. Hicks' instruments are all copies -- but not slavish ones -- of extant antique harpsichords. "I try to preserve the virtues of the instruments, but without duplicating their faults," he explains.

When Hicks talks about his harpsichords, he refers to them by the name of their original maker. Hempsch. Taskin. Right now, he's taking his cues from a French harpsichord built in 1760 by Benoist Stehlin. To illustrate why this particular instrument caught his eye, Hicks produces a photograph in Wolfgang Zuckerman's The Modern Harpsichord. With long, tapered fingers, he points out the elements that first attracted him: the larger-than-usual soundboard area; the deep plucking point; the straight nut -- all attributes that promised a rich, full sound. But he needed more than a photograph to actually build a new Stehlin. Fortunately, the instrument in question was housed at the Smithsonian Institution and Hicks was able to obtain a drawing showing every inch of it in exact proportion.

Unrolled, the full-size blueprint of the Stehlin -- at least 12 feet long -- spills over the edges of Hicks' long drafting table. Clean black lines unfurl in all directions. If I concentrate, I can almost see a harpsichord among the various lines, arrows and labels. Hicks, of course, has no trouble divining the instrument. He points out where the blueprint confirmed his initial impressions of the Stehlin, and more: "As I pored over the drawing," he says, "I began noticing things I didn't like." After a careful appraisal, he visited the Stehlin in person and played it. As he had expected, it had a sweet, full tone. With a smile, he says, "I really fell for it."

On a table in Hicks' workshop, an unfinished Stehlin lies on its side like a great wing. It's a rainbow of different woods: Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, poplar and ash. "It's going to be one of my best instruments," Hicks says. "I don't care if it's five different colors." As he identifies the different parts of the frame, his knuckles graze the soundboard. Though he barely touches it, it lets out a low, drum-like moan. The Stehlin's soundboard is made from Sitka spruce -- a rare, highly resonant wood from Alaska.

To see where Hicks stores his soundboards, we head up to the attic. It is cool and dark, exposed insulation buffering the low, pitched ceiling. Long, thin boards lie in a heap. Hicks sifts through the pile, lifts a piece to his ear and raps it with his knuckles. The first piece emits a dull thud, and he tosses it aside. "Englemann." The next piece lets out a dim ring. "Sitka spruce." He puts that one back in the pile. Another piece surprises him. "Swiss pine, from Zurich. Not bad!" Last of all, he tries a piece of cedar clapboard left over from when he re-sided his house. He gives it a rap. It rings like a bell.

A finished Stehlin sits in Hicks' living room. It's the first one he ever built and he has no plans to sell it. As I scribble notes about the floral paintings on the soundboard, Hicks puts the Stehlin through its paces with a series of chord progressions. I put down my pen. Rich, golden notes roll out of the harpsichord. Each note is piquant, exquisite, with a harp's deep resonance and a cascading liveliness like a handful of pennies flung down a flight of stairs.

The Stehlin is a double-manual, with a two-tiered keyboard. Hicks couples and uncouples it to switch and combine octaves, but I'm too lost in the sound to keep track of the transitions. The air glitters with rich, roiling notes, and I feel as if I'm being drenched in sound.

I am startled when Hicks reaches into the harpsichord's maw and pulls out a long, narrow wooden tooth: a jack. The small, thorn-like thing jutting out from one side is the plectrum -- the harpsichord's plucking mechanism. Plectra are hand-carved, traditionally from crow, raven and goose quill, though most modern makers substitute plastic, which is more durable and affordable.

Hicks uses both. To get his feathers, he heads over to the Addison Wildlife Preserve during hunting season and loiters by the game warden's office, where hunters must check in with their booty. After getting the hunters' approval, Hicks personally pulls the primary flight feathers from the dead geese; a process that he does not enjoy. "It's kind of awkward," he says. "I'm vegetarian."

In spite of the robust Early Music scene in the United States and the resurgence of interest in the harpsichord in recent years, the market for the instrument is slow-moving: Hicks builds and sells about one instrument each year. Though he has a modest Web site to advertise his instruments, he makes most sales through instrument exhibitions and the occasional convention. He goes to the Boston Early Music Festival to exhibit his harpsichords. Usually someone will buy an instrument there. Once someone bought one on the spot, though harpsichords are rarely an impulse buy. Though Hicks prefers to retain some modesty about his work, he admits that in 1995, his debut at the festival, he "stole the show."

Harpsichord rentals have provided "a lot of bread and butter" in recent years. "When I buy a new car, I run around with a tape measure," he says. "The car's got to be 104 inches from dash to tail on the diagonal, and it has to be five-speed -- I don't care about anything else." The Lane Series and the Vermont Mozart Festival regularly rent Hicks' harpsichords. If you're at a harpsichord performance, you might spot him darting out to do a spot of touch-up tuning during intermissions.

Hicks builds all his instruments "on speculation" rather than to-order; he hasn't built any instruments on commission for 20 years. "Not building on commission means I don't have a future," he says. But he's willing to sacrifice security for the freedom to build according to his own curiosity and passion. As he writes on his Web site, "I suspect that the driving force behind a great instrument is a curiosity, an engaged perplexity which keeps a maker learning throughout his career.

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